Image: Museum of Communism - Prague-13 by Mark Surman on 2009-10-06 09:14:39
This is the first part of a two-part series examining the similarities – and differences – between North Korea and the superpower which created it.
One of the most common stereotypes about North Korea is that the country is essentially a small copy of the Soviet Union.
The similarities are, indeed, hard to deny. But the DPRK is different from its creator state to the same extent that a child is different from his or her parent (i.e. quite different).
First of all, it should be noted that one cannot talk about “the USSR in general” or “the DPRK in general”: both countries have experienced significant changes throughout the course of history.
Soviet history can, for example, be divided into the relatively liberal years of the New Economic Policy, proclaimed even before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was created in 1922, the age of Stalin, Khrushchev’s thaw, the Age of Stagnation (1964-1985) and, finally, Gorbachev’s perestroika.
North Korean history can also be divided into several periods. The first one can be called “Soviet”, which lasted from 1945 to 1957: Pyongyang was under the USSR’s control and, at least at the beginning, Moscow’s representatives had much more power than Kim Il Sung.
The second age (1957-1967) was one of transition, as Kim Il Sung asserted the country’s independence and the DPRK, generally, sided with Beijing instead of Moscow.
The last is the Kimist age of the absolute rule of the first family, and the shameless personality cult which has lasted up until the present day (we are talking about politics here: when it comes to the economy, North Korea entered a completely new age in the 1990s).
IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID
The first and the most fundamental trait of the North Korean economy of the Kim Il Sung years was the public distribution system – goods were not bought but, instead, were provided by the state according to quotas. Like most other countries, the Soviet Union only used this system in the direst of times, to prevent the population (or at least part of it) from starving to death. As a result, Soviet people viewed the public distribution system as a sign of near-total economic collapse.
North Korea was quite the opposite: the public distribution system existed from the late 1950s and was perceived as the norm, not as an emergency measure. Its de-facto collapse in the second half of the 1990s coincided with the famine, and hence, North Korean generally viewed the abolition of the public distribution system as a sign of near-total economic collapse.
The second difference is that the DPRK’s economy was, and to a certain extent still is, a parasitic one. Pyongyang expected to thrive on foreign help, which North Korean diplomats received in Moscow, Beijing and, later, other capitals too.
Third, markets in North Korea now play a much larger role than they ever did in the Soviet Union. Almost everything can be bought and sold, and most North Koreans are linked to bazaars in some way. In other words, while under Kim Il Sung this semi-legal sector of the economy was much smaller than in the USSR, under Kim Jong Il it became truly colossal.
Fourth, the Soviet Union was richer. Even a villager under Brezhnev would probably still be richer than an average resident of Pyongyang. And despite the situation improving, the North Korean capital still lacks electricity. Moscow, a city where under Communism people could eat meat every day, was perceived by North Koreans as some kind of unthinkable paradise of the rich.
The DPRK’s economy was, and to a certain extent still is, a parasitic one
A socialist motherland needs to be protected so that the Communist Party’s rule won’t be challenged, and probably no other country has as many means to facilitate this as North Korea.
With the exception of children and camp inmates, every North Korean is a member of a state organization. It may be the Korean Children’s Union, the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League, the Workers’ Party of Korea, or the Union of Democratic Women of Korea, to name a few. Each of these organizations has regular ideological sessions (usually two or three times per week), where members meet to hear about the Leader’s greatness and conduct sessions of criticism and self-criticism.
The USSR did not have the North Korean system of “people’s groups”, more commonly known as inminban. These were actually one of the few things North Korea inherited from the colonial era: in Japanese Korea, these were called “patriotic groups” (aikokuhan). While state-led organizations control a person at school or in his/her workplace, “people’s groups” do that at home.
Sometimes these groups conduct surprise searches: a chairwoman and a police patrol check the apartments of houses which belong to the groups: if there are outsiders in the building, they are in trouble. In the Soviet Union, private residency was almost not controlled at all: some dissidents joked: “the authority of the Soviets ends at my flat’s entrance.”
With the exception of children and camp inmates, every North Korean is a member of a state organization.
The DPRK, unlike the USSR, treats the question of a person’s origins as a very serious one. Even under late Stalin, a person of noble origin would not be seriously discriminated against, but when it comes to North Korea, the country developed a complex system of formal statuses, songbun and kyechung, to mark a person’s origins and prescribe that person’s place in society.
The Soviet Union, unlike North Korea, was a little more lax about mass political involvement. All children were supposed to join the Little Octobrists and then the Young Pioneers, but a daughter of a priest, for example, could stay out of these groups. In the late USSR, all young men and women had to join the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, but a young gangster could get his application rejected by the secretary.
In the Soviet Union, private residency was almost not controlled at all: some dissidents joked: “the authority of the Soviets ends at my flat’s entrance”
In all elections, there was only one pre-approved candidate, but one could vote against the party’s candidate without any consequences. In general elections, it mattered not, since the Politburo approved the official results before they were conducted, but on lower levels, like a Party cell, it would not be impossible to actually block a superior’s proposal through a vote.
North Koreans, on the other hand, cannot vote against a candidacy or a proposal, and all votes must be cast solely to endorse the state.
And although all the Soviet elite was composed of CPSU members, there were some exceptions: even a top-ranking scientist wouldn’t necessarily have to be a member of the Party.
The North Korean elite is comprised entirely of ruling party members
North Korea has none of this flexibility. All children, with the exception of the very young and those who are imprisoned, must be members of the Korean Children’s Union and the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League. I once told a woman from Pyongyang that this was not the way things happened in the USSR and she was shocked: a citizen of a socialist country not being a member of a party-affiliated organization? How could this be?
The North Korean elite is comprised entirely of ruling party members. Unlike the USSR, where joining the CPSU was seen as voluntarily declaration of loyalty to the state, joining the WPK is perceived as an essential bureaucratic procedure, one which grants a citizen extended rights.
MONARCHY VS OLIGARCHY
One of the most important political advantages of the USSR compared to North Korea is that the Soviet Union was not a monarchy. Lenin had no children and Stalin, fortunately, was not very close to his. Stalin’s son Vasiliy died an ordinary Lieutenant General of the Air Force, not as a great successor of Lenin and Stalin’s revolutionary cause.
A result of this system was that a successor had no problems dealing with the legacy of their predecessor: after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin, the number of political prisoners in the USSR dropped to less than 1% of its total under Stalin.
By appointing his son a successor, Kim Il Sung ensured that his line would be followed. Hence, despite the economy being very different, socially and politically the DPRK remains as it was under the late Kim Il Sung.
The Soviet Army was a conscription-based one. A term of service in the army was two years, or three for those who chose the navy. Sometimes the state prolonged the term: those who were really unlucky had to serve for six years.
However, in comparison with North Korea, Soviet citizens were lucky. In the DPRK, the term for conscription is ten years, and from 1996 to 2003 it was thirteen. Since 2015, women are also conscripted, but the duration of their service is less than that of men.
By appointing his son a successor, Kim Il Sung ensured that his line would be followed
However, North Koreans have a much more positive attitude towards military service than most Soviet citizens. Most USSR citizens, especially those who lived in cities, were happy to avoid conscription. In the DPRK, many people joyfully join the army for a number of reasons.
Firstly, for a person with a substandard songbun and kyechung, military service is one of the few, if not the only, ways to upgrade their social status and to join the Party. Second, if you want to enter an academy, you need to serve as a private first, so for those who wanted to become an officer, conscription is the first stage of this career.
Finally, for poor people a military career looks attractive: you are fed and you live in the barracks, so you don’t need to worry about food and clothes. No surprise checks from inminban, too, so a soldier can sleep well. And after being discharged you are a Party member: perhaps, you’ll become a minor official. As a result, many people join the KPA and do not avoid service.
These are just some of the interesting contrasts between North Korea and the USSR. In part two, we’ll examine the critical differences between the two in terms of ideology, international affairs, and human rights.
This is the first part of a two-part series examining the similarities - and differences - between North Korea and the superpower which created it.One of the most common stereotypes about North Korea is that the country is essentially a small copy of the Soviet Union. The similarities are, indeed, hard to deny. But the DPRK is different from its creator state to the same extent that a
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.